It was out of curiosity that I decided to spend five days living in silence among 16 Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, about 30 miles north of Charleston. But once there, I found wisdom, inner peace, mindfulness, stillness and inner growth.
I found a beautiful camaraderie among the monks who live there. There was lovely music sung throughout the day in the church. There was an atmosphere of brotherly love, of forgiveness, kindness and gentleness. Absent from life at Mepkin Abbey were the every-day concerns of politics, traffic, noise, social media and other things we long to sometimes get away from, even if for just a little while.
Unlike other Catholic orders, such as the Dominicans and the Jesuits, Trappist monks do not focus on outreach. Also, unlike other orders, they take a vow of silence – and those of us doing a retreat there are expected to observe that as well.
Trappist monks live a truly monastic lifestyle focused on prayer, contemplation and work. Their work does lead them to the outside world in a limited way. If you’ve eaten in any of Charleston’s finer restaurants, it’s likely that you might have eaten mushrooms grown by the monks at Mepkin Abbey.
Getting to the Abbey took me down multiple farm roads far out in the country. The longer I drove, the less evidence of humanity I saw. Once entering the gates, I immediately sensed a quietness that I had not quite sensed before. It was as if the world had stopped. And in fact, it did essentially stop for the next five days.
There was a short orientation upon arrival. We were given a schedule for Mass, prayer services and meals. Each of us 16 retreatants had the option to participate in all or none of it. Retreatants came from up and down the east coast, and most had been to Mepkin before, some multiple times.
The lifestyle did take some getting used to at first. Day one was difficult, as I began to wonder how I was going to fill all my time. I conquered that by perusing the Abbey’s vast library for books to help me with spiritual growth.
Then I found a bench outdoors overlooking the river, where I spent considerable time reading and contemplating and enjoying the natural surroundings. Meals could be awkward, too. I don’t think I ever did get used to eating with others but not having a conversation with them.
The day came to leave, and I didn’t want to go. In fact, I asked about extending my stay, but the Abbey’s retreat center was booked. That’s usually the case. It’s so popular that they now limit the number of visits per person to three per year.
Re-entering the “real world” was shockingly chaotic. Once I hit Monck’s Corner and the traffic had picked up, I knew that I was back, already longing for the life I had just left behind.
Mepkin Abbey is a special kind of place.
J Lanning Smith is a local writer and photographer.